You’ll Never Make Any Money From Wobbleboarding (Voiceworks – 2003)
The first gig I ever did was to a modest but receptive audience of three, in 1987. It was a place called the spare bedroom and Nan, Pop and Mum came all the way up the hall to see me. Being a child genius rockstar, before strumming a note, I asked the audience to stand with their backs to me. It sounds like one of those stories that gets passed around and snowballed into an urban myth, but believe it or not, it’s true, and possibly even more pretentious than Tool refusing to do an encore.
Okay, I was a bit shy.
The last gig I did was at the Cat and Fiddle pub in Balmain a couple of weeks ago. I was supporting a funk covers band, and without a degree in crowd dynamics, one could safely assume that most of the chirpy punters weren’t there to see me. Twenty seconds into the opening song, an acoustic version of Rockafella Skank, I knew things were bad. My attention grabbing song wasn’t grabbing. I was straining to hear myself over the chatter.
Of the fifty, only one guy was looking my way, and he needed to go to the loo. Inattentive audiences were nothing new, but this was a revelation. It was the noisiest apathy I’d ever heard. By the third song, my carefully crafted song words could have been the ingredients to tropical muesli. My engaging and original chord structures could be the hold muzak for Centrelink’s phone-line. I could go topless and knock over the microphone stand and no one would bat a brain-cell. I know the last part because I tried it. The microphone bit was accidental, but it didn’t matter anyway. I stopped the song, picked it up, and kept on playing, unable to compete with a plate of wedges and the story about Ann-Marie’s new car.
‘It’s a despicable industry.’
These words were said by Fred Smith to me last year in a pub, after I stammered out that I wanted to focus on my music and try and make a career out of it. He said them and took a sip of his whiskey. I sort of laughed, not sure how to react. Fred is a respected Canberra folk singer who gets compared to Billy Bragg and writes intense, intelligent emotional stuff with a sense of humour. He said you better get a mailing list son, you better get a real good one, and be prepared to play in front of very small audiences.
‘It’s a boutique industry.’ I said.
He liked that.
I chose 2003 as the year to focus on my music, and make the transition from hobby to career. I’m careering alright. And in my mind I’m wearing the same tshirt everyday with Fred’s comment written on it. I look down every so often and think, ‘mmm….yes’
When I think of a despicable industry, I think of weedly high school kids out in the cold wobble boarding pizza specials to afternoon traffic. I think ‘poor buggers, getting paid eight bucks an hour no doubt, lagooned on a traffic island, like a pathetic Rolf Harris tribute, you must feel invisible.
Well folks, swap the wobble-board for a guitar, pizza prices for lyrics and you’ve got an original solo musician, doing pretty much the same thing but for less pay, and in most cases less impact.
‘$6 pizza, fuck I could go one right now.’
‘A waffly ballad about self doubt? Fuck, what time’s the DJ?’
I started writing waffly ballads in 1996. I’d record them sitting on the toilet (lid down) with my little walkman microphone blu takked to the indoor clothesline. (this is how Radiohead record, apparently) I’d give the cassette a title, and do the album artwork with textas and pencils. For my first album, I sampled the clapping and cheering from Nirvana’s unplugged, and, activating a separate stereo with my toe, played it in the background at the end of my songs, sometimes with an obligatory “thank you.”
In 1998 I started writing songs that I’d let people hear, performing them at college music concerts, and impromptu gigs in the cafeteria. At the height of schoolyard fame, I staged my own lunch time benefit concert to raise money towards the $300 damage bill for the hall of my unsupervised 18th birthday party. My friends passed a hat around, and I raised $80.
I met Adam Forbes and Matt Kelly at uni in 1999 and we formed Urban Turban. Our first ever gig was at 9 o’clock in the morning, the day after Stomp, a massive all night dance party. In scorching Canberra sun a sleep depraved group of ravers threw paper at us and made requests for the theme from love boat and some song called ‘Joe’ that we’d never heard of.
Our next gig was at Gender Bender, a night where guys and girls get drunk and wear each other’s clothes. (sometimes in that order) The theme was ‘the future’ and being earnest and naive we took this very seriously and wrote three overly clever songs about the future.
“…astroboy was set in 1995, I’ve never been to mars and cars don’t fly…”.
After a few seconds we realised that the aforementioned set of acoustic wittisisms, was, at best, ill advised. With bourbon fueled part time transvestites howling like buffoons, I couldn’t hear my guitar, Adam couldn’t hear his vocals, and Matt was battling with a girl trying to see up his dress with a plastic pitchfork.
With an equal balance of comedy and serious material, Urban Turban gigs were becoming increasingly bi polar for performers and audience. The dramatic juxtaposition was amplifying the instant gratitude of humour, and the funeral-like pause that suffixed serious songs. Here is a quote from an Urban Turban interview that appeared in the student magazine I was writing for at the time. (yes, Adam and I actually sat around a tape recorder asking each other questions)
“serious stuff means more to me, but a crowd reacts better to the comedy. You notice that a crowd will perk up and tune into a funny song, mainly because it’s instantly accessible, you can understand the words, it’s funny, people love to laugh, whereas I think it’s just naturally harder for someone to get into a serious song. because the words are more poetic.”
In early 2000 The Harmonica Lewinski’s were born. We needed two bands. One for funny stuff and one for serious. In 2000 the campus band competition provided the perfect trial for the experiment, when we entered both acts. Comedy was the winner, with the Harmonica’s advancing into the ACT finals. One judge wrote: ‘guitars were sometimes out of time, but couldn’t tell if this was on purpose as some sort of musical protest.’
“The Harmonica Lewinski’s then ran though a satire-laden set. Theirs was a bit like red faces without the gong but they get points for their rendition of denis leary’s ‘i’m an asshole’ (read: I’m an aussie.)”
Paul Berwick, BMA 152, march 9 2002
Somehow amidst the nervous breakdowns of uni deadlines, we recorded two CD’s for both bands and gigged infrequently. By late 2001 Matt Kelly had moved on, and Urban Turban was abandoned. It was decided that the funny stuff was more fun for the audience, and therefore more fun for the band. But underneath the beanies and the bedlam, were a pair of laconic wobble boarding clowns, forced to accept that even though they’d written the soundtrack to Jeff Buckley and Augie March’s lovechild, punters wanted parodies and farty noises.
The Harmonica Lewinski’s, (the band everyone had heard of but no one had seen), played their last gig in June 2002. Here is the review that appeared in Canberra streetpress, BMA:
“What began as a notion at UC in 1999 quickly led to their misunderstood musings cutting a swathe through university revues and campus band competitions, before ending on this night at their beloved local. Complimentary tissues were distributed for the final appearance of a duo who at very worst, provided much needed comic relief to a scene that can at times take itself far too seriously. Despite talk of ‘reunion tours’ the finality of the moment was palpable and it took a rousing rendition of and response to their crowd favourite ‘aussie’ to melt the ice.”
Daniel Craddock, BMA 158, June 1 2002
Never live with friends who are band mates. Adam and I parted company after an argument about ironing curtain linings, and didn’t talk to each other for three months. Our last communication was a package he sent containing three of my cassettes he’d found, and a 12 word message on a deposit slip.
After going solo I was picked up by Triple J’s Morning Show, writing one comedy song per week for six months. In September 2002 I opened for Unearthed in Canberra. 1300 people were there at 6pm for the free all ages show. After half an hour Robbie Buck had to drag me from the stage.
For my first gig after moving to Sydney, I totally mixed up my serious and funny songs. At one point I attempted to take the audience from Falling Awake, a song about depression, to Disco Chicken, a song about a disco chicken. Afterwards I asked a couple if it worked. The girl said I had pulled it off by taking the audience with me, while my friend Catherine said ‘yeah…nah…i reckon …’ The guy who booked me said the highs and lows worked and he wanted me to play every week.
The Cat and Fiddle works like this: There’s a cover charge and you’re encouraged to provide your own audience. The first $100 goes to the sound guy, and the remainder is split up between the bands. Thing is, I don’t know anyone.and despite having national radio exposure, no one comes, so I can’t provide an audience. And neither could anyone else on the Monday night St Patrick’s day that I found myself wobble boarding to the other bands. We were asked to pay the sound guy out of our own pockets.
I had to ask the band who had traveled from Adelaide to spot me my share, before walking to the bus stop in light rain.
A quote I once heard on Parkinson about the entertainment industry:
‘Don’t do it if you really really really really want to do it.
Do it if you have to do it.’
And I just can’t turn my back on an audience.